According to the 1940 census, Framalopa County had a population of slightly over 8,000. About half of these lived in town, and the other half lived in the country: truck farmers and cattlemen who came to town on Saturdays to buy the few necessities they couldn’t raise themselves. At that time, Florida was the second-largest cattle-producing state in the nation.
The townspeople had their own crop to tend: Yankees, who came down to Framalopa and other coastal Florida towns after the first snowfall in Cleveland or Jersey City or Utica. If they were rich enough, they would put their children in the Out-of-Door School, so named to remind folks that Florida winters were mild enough for classes to be held on the school’s sun-swept lawn or under coconut palms beside the blue-green waters of Framalopa Bay. Much of the time, classes met indoors to avoid the cold, wet winter wind.
Parents who couldn’t afford the Out-of-Door School sent their kids to Bay Haven Elementary, Southside Elementary, or Framalopa High School. But as soon as they got word from back home that the creeks had thawed and the first robin had crapped on the village green, they packed up and headed north, where God was squatting on their front lawn, waiting to welcome them home.
In retrospect I realize that the presence of what the Chamber of Commerce called “our winter visitors” subverted a sleepy Southern town’s sense of belonging to itself. It had undergone a subtle but irreversible transformation the day the Chamber decided that our future depended on how many people we could attract from somewhere else.
It was all about money, as maybe it had to be, particularly during a Depression. However, in other parts of the country—New England, the Deep South, the Midwest—folks were suspicious of outsiders. A teacher at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, where I went to school, told our class that he had lived in the town for over 20 years, and people still referred to him as “that newcomer.” By the time I left Framalopa for the last time, there was no such thing as a Florida accent.
We certainly hustled to accommodate and amuse these cash cows. We were like sidewalk pitchmen, pulling one item after another out of our pockets. “If you don’t like that, then how about this!”
Perhaps our greatest assets were our two beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, both as white as the snow. Well, almost. When you first stepped onto the strip of burning sand more than 200 yards wide, you were blinded by its whiteness, and your feet almost burst into flame. In a minute or two, your eyes became accustomed to the reflected sunlight, but the soles of your feet still burned.
The city built a casino on Lido Beach—no gambling, but a public swimming pool, a bar, a restaurant, a dance floor, dressing rooms, and a souvenir shop full of ceramic ashtrays decorated with flamingos, gators, and palm trees. To appeal to the Yankees’ inexplicable love of Old South artifacts, the shop also sold glazed colored boys eating lavender watermelons. And tourists could buy a ceramic outhouse—Souvenir of Framalopa, Florida. At other shops around town, you could find life-sized flamingos made of plastic, painted pink, all standing on one leg. They were quite popular, and thousands went north in the trunks of cars.
Two women—friends of my mother—decided to open a shop catering to discerning Yankees. They picked a good location—a new building on U.S. 41, just across the street from the entrance to the Army Air Base—and they stocked the place with antiques, more-recent art-nouveau and art-deco objects, and a few new, upscale items: a tasteful inventory, priced moderately. As they were setting up shop, a man came by with a truckload of plastic flamingos and offered them at the wholesale price of eight dollars apiece.
“You can sell them things all day for $19.95.”
The women declined, ever so politely, pointing to their stock, which had little in common with his flamingos.
“Yes’m. I’ll stop by in a couple of weeks and see how y’all are doing.”
When he came back, they had to admit they weren’t doing too well.
“People don’t know we’re here yet. We’ve sold a couple of items. But nothing big.”
“Want me to leave a couple of flamingos?”
Again, they declined.
He came back in a month, and the women were desperate. Potential customers had come and gone, but sales had been minimal. They were about to give up.
“Flamingos sell like hotcakes,” he reminded them.
They looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. Why not try a couple?
He took two flamingos out of his truck and stuck them in the grass in front of the building.
“I’m leaving my phone number. Need a refill, give me a call.”
The next morning a car drove past the shop, screeched to a stop, and backed up. A middle-aged couple emerged—he, wearing baseball cap and Hawaiian shirt; she, in shorts and bandana-patterned halter. They inspected the flamingos, argued with each other, then bought both birds.
“A fluke,” the women told each other. But they called the number anyway and ordered two more flamingos.
“Why don’t you make it five?” he said, and they did. Within a couple of days they had sold all five.
The next time my mother drove by the shop, the lawn was overflowing with plastic flamingos. You could almost hear them screeching at each other and see them coating the grass with excrement. My mother stopped and went inside. The few antique tables left were covered with colored boys and outhouses. When they saw the expression on her face, both women burst out laughing.
In 1940—just as the Nazis were rolling over France—a local entrepreneur created Framalopa Jungle—a tropical garden with exotic trees and flowers: gardenia, jacaranda, kumquat, gold, punk, oleander, hibiscus, flame vine, bougainvillea, and poinsettia. He also stocked the lush landscape with wildly painted parrots that screeched and squawked from the banana and mango trees, honest-to-God flamingos with clipped wings that would eat out of your hand, and small animals like raccoons and possums. He stocked a stagnant pond with a couple of alligators that floated motionless in the rancid water, eyes unblinking, waiting for one of the raccoons or possums to stray too close to the edge of the water.
If you particularly liked gators and snakes, on the other side of town, Texas Jim Mitchell ran the Framalopa Reptile Farm, which featured dozing rattlesnakes, coral snakes, cottonmouth moccasins, black snakes, gopher snakes, and chicken snakes; a wildcat, looking forlornly out of its too-small cage; a senile lion that could barely yawn; and two chained monkeys that every so often would do something so obscene that the women would avert their eyes and the men would nudge each other.
The snakes were the chief attraction; and when Texas Jim was finishing his spiel at the alligator pen, his wife—standing with bamboo stick poised—would poke the rattlesnakes until they began to whir feebly, annoyed at being awakened. The sound would quicken the hearts of the customers, who would tremble as they approached the snake pit to peer down at the loops of rattlers, intertwined like spaghetti in the gray sand. By the time they got there, the snakes had usually said their prayers and were again fast asleep.
This is how it all began in Framalopa, and eventually turned the town—and indeed the whole state—into one big tourist trap.